Markets, Museums, and Hotels

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I stayed in bed until the sun was awake enough to cast a rosy hue over the golden buildings, brown mountains, and blue sky in the distance. I was also hoping the heat rays would be a few meters closer to Earth this morning as I began to wander about. I noticed that shops wrap their goods left outside, more of a protection from weather than thieves, as deliveries can be left on the doorstep in the same manner.

The only other things moving this early are taxi drivers, hungry birds, a cat guarding a gate, a dog sleeping by a door, some fallen dead leaves, and employees going through auto-pilot on their way to work. Age is perception as well as upkeep, but there’s a weird feeling I get walking amongst buildings that have been here for decades and look like they’ve been abandoned twice as long, yet knowing soon people will be passing through with pets and plastics as part of their morning routine.

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Georgian Museum of Fine Arts

My first goal, besides staring at the sun coming down through the trees, is to find something to eat, as usual. I’m in luck as a window with a bakery sign appears to my right and I point at the giant croissant, full of nuts and crumb filling magic, and appreciate the distance between me and dessert breakfasts that only cost one lari as I would always find this pastry worth the walk.

The gate to the Garden of the First Republic of Georgia is open unlike much else as I explore the city on foot. I can just make out the year 1845 on the sign that appears burnt but also shares some of the plant life that calls this place home — Chittamwood, Horse Chestnut, Bleeding Heart, White Fir, and European beech. I see giant agave, a tree with ‘vino’ painted on it, a large private building with its bricks showing, and a dilapidated sidewalk that possibly could’ve been a local road.

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The neatest thing in the park wasn’t the sign listing 36 books of which only three had titles I could read — Jane Austen “Pride and Prejudice”, Herman Melville “Moby Dick”, and Galaktion Tabidze “Poetry” — or the pathway of benches and waste bins lined with skinny trees, but the stone drinking fountain with a spigot that protrudes past the guard so that it resembles a germ-covered straw.

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Bridge of Peace

I noticed a steeple behind a short wall and inside the elaborate gate and detailed door was a small church (no photos allowed) where the booth selling books, candles, and jewelry seemed to fill the corner. I reached my hand down into the middle of a bread basket, not sure if the pieces were edible or not, and that simple prosphora loaf of leavened bread cost me a dime, so I consumed it but not with the same joy as I do most carbs whether they melt in my mouth or need more coaxing from my teeth.

If you walk around long enough eventually a dog will join you if it’s the adventurous or hungry type. I found a cup on the ground and pulled the water bottle out of my coat pocket to share a drink with a medium-sized black dog with white ankle socks on in front and white toe socks on in the back. A majority of the dogs look well-fed and disease-free but as with all things in nature, there are anomalies.

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sulphur bath district

My hands are freezing because I didn’t have gloves on this side of The Atlantic to pack so they are taking turns in my armpits between photos of art, signs, cars, facades, and dogs playing in the street. I get to the sulphur baths of which I had planned to lay on a communal surface while having a layer of my skin scrubbed off but pass by the opportunity to look at water, bricks, tiles, locks, stairs, and bridges instead. I was embracing the cold weather and the drab rocks surrounding the waterfall that created dark greenery and ice.

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I was going to walk west but was pulled eastward across the Mtkvari River towards the giant bronze statue, erected in 1967, of King Vakhtang Gorgasali (meaning a wolf’s head) who is credited with founding Tbilisi and ruling the capital from the age of 15 until his death in 502, some 45 years later. The Metekhi Virgin Mary Assumption Church that is guarded by the king on his horse was destroyed by a Mongol invasion but was rebuilt in the 13th century and restored in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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Metekhi Church

The church’s outer wall is built to meet the river and join the rocky mountain that the place of worship is built on, so that like many religious structures in this region it can be seen from a distance as a place of refuge from weather and photos as none are allowed inside. Next time I will bring a sketch pad so that I may attempt to share the simple grandeur that these buildings share on the inside while remaining typically Georgian and beautifully weathered on the outside.

I’m sure one of my parents at some point told me about the dangers of taking candy from a stranger but they never mentioned all the other goodies that a no-name person could present you with so I’ve been quite accepting in my three decades of life. Walking out of the church and having a man give me a prosphora with the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus would come as no surprise that I would hope the decoration made this loaf just a bit tastier. The bread giver quickly disappeared, perhaps to keep on gifting.

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Sculpture Tree of Life, Europe Square

I opt out of the aerial tramway in Europe Square but pay the lari to use their toilet. I mention this because I tried to use the casino across the street but they wanted me to pay and sign up to enter. I will have to add public facilities to my pre-trip research list though I did get lucky that a restaurant doing its opening routine let me in for free. There are men charging for pictures with blue-and-yellow macaws and a capuchin monkey (both from South America) along with a falcon and peacocks that have a more worldly habitat.

                                State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Instruments

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mini instruments

This will be my first time seeing a portion, really just a fragment, of the Berlin Wall given to the Prime Minister of Georgia, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, on a visit to Germany in 2017 as a symbol of friendship. It’s impressive and powerful the history this almost 12-foot high slab of concrete can deliver while being over 3,000 km away from its origin. Spray painted on both sides is “ExpoNice” which refers to an annual conference dedicated to cybersecurity as firewalls replace some crumbling physical barriers.

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view from Narikala Fortress

There’s a solar-powered bench nearby with four USB outlets and a free wifi sign but the confused look on the guy’s face sitting there tells me something isn’t right — the panel is missing so his phone isn’t charging… this definitely wasn’t covered in Georgian 101. Some travelers have set itineraries whether for themselves or through a company but I quite enjoy the “I’m not lost anywhere I go because I’m still exploring somewhere/thing new” feeling, even if it is my second attempt towards the Narikala Fortress and National Botanical Garden without a map when I find my next detour.

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There’s a sign for the State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Instruments, a place I hadn’t considered but that brought the MIM of Phoenix, AZ to mind. It wouldn’t disappoint as I went down the stairs into an apartment complex yard and in a secure door to an older man sitting at a desk and a younger man who would direct me to the left to pay my student entrance fee to another man. This museum started as a branch of another museum in 1975 and became independent in 1984. The MIM, largest of its kind, was opened in 2010 and focuses on the impact of music on the planet.

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The first hall consists mainly of animal skins and bones with wood in different configurations for string, wind, keyboard, and percussion instruments — panduri, gudastviri, tsiko-tsiko, and diplipito — local to this region. There is a picture of the Chavleishvilis’ circle dance with a group of men on one knee holding hands. Most of the displays don’t come with a description just a catalog number and title in Georgian.

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The second hall contains an Oriental (meaning Jews, Armenia, Turkey, Russia, and Azerbaijan, etc.) exhibition. I see stringed instruments inlaid with nacre (mother of pearl) on the handles, drums similar to the djembe variety of West Africa, and turntables for 3-inch vinyl records. The third hall is full of barrel organs, orchestrions, zithers, gramophones, accordions, and symphonions to name a few. The Europeans in the nineteenth century had a large impact on the instruments that would influence the culture of the country.

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In the middle of the self-guided museum tour, I’m able to look out the window and into the courtyard covered in what appears to be greenhouse roofing material. Back inside, I think about, better than being able to see within some of the larger instruments would have been having the opportunity to hear them, recorded or live. Instead, I’m left with Jailhouse Rock by Elvis on a 10-inch CRT TV which the US stopped making a decade ago but that China, Latin America, Africa, and Asia still find worthy of the low cost.

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I make it to the Narikala Fortress, built in the 4th century, and there is a sign overlooking the Baths District that tells of the dinner, theatre, and match-making of women in new dresses that took place in the warm comfort of the baths. I suppose, either way, undressed there or covered for a church, I wouldn’t be able to take pictures inside but there’s a nice panoramic view of the city below and the Saguramo Range in the distance.

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Next on the list, past the cats and birds (painted and real), is the Ateshgah Fire Temple from the Zoroastrians presence in the 5th to 7th centuries. I have no expectations but I only find a bunch of different-colored wooden staircases leading to locked doors after I climb the few brick stairs to what was conserved in 2007 — I’m not sure, but the QR scan tells me “a brick square type building with an almost ruined roof.” Well, I can appreciate this is the closest I will get to see the Mother of Georgia, from the knees up, erected in 1958 to celebrate Tbilisi’s 1500th year anniversary.

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I find my way back to a main road, past a man chopping wood, and stop for a maroon churchkhela (fruit paste dried around walnuts). The treat looks like a lumpy candle as it hangs on strings in a group. You choose the shade of red, yellow, or purple that you want and it gets cut and bagged, but I grabbed mine and separated the chewy and nutty goodness starting from one end as you could also start in the middle or cut it into sharable pieces.

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Catholic Cathedral

The first church that I can take pictures in today is the Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin Mary, complete with an old candle-holder chandelier turned electric and a scene of the Baby Jesus cut into the top of a mural only decapitating a few of his disciples. There’s also a 3D version of the youthful savior on the floor with open arms lying between a pair of poinsettia plants.

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fountain, Pushkin Square

 

                                                             Museum of Fine Arts

Back outside, down the street, and into the daunting container called the Georgian Museum of Fine Arts. Inside is a large glass container — doors, walls, floors, and stairs — but a very typical museum counter to the right. I approach, pay my 15 lari, and scan my ticket at the gate to gain entrance to the exhibits — the first being “this is how it feels to walk on glass and wonder if you will fall through.” The feeling is different in the glass elevator that I will take to the next floor, but my mind starts to play with me as I can see the black-tiled floor below.

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I’m relieved to see men in a room with banana leaves reflecting off the shiny ground though I could see the artistic reason behind an entire glass-bottom museum it may play into others’ privacy, but that’s part of the excitement of exploring how other cultures create their societies and what aspects of their humanism they choose to enforce. I once told my dad that I wanted to go to college so I would have an easier time understanding the concepts at museums.

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That statement wasn’t a lie but it wasn’t the full reason either. I find that some art is better-left unknown, left to interpretation by the viewer, like international music without understanding the lyrics which can add a sad twist to a song that sounds upbeat. I don’t know now if it was the museum’s curation or if I was just drawn to mostly black-yellow and black-white images but there are so many techniques and themes being expressed of which mostly people and trees captured my attention.

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Georgian National Museum

The next place to grasp my senses is the Georgian National Museum. The first exhibit contains a few paintings, some over a century old, with descriptions beside them trying to explain the actions, and meanings thereof, of the humans or what the image lacks that creates uncertainty in the viewer and increases speculation to what the artist intended to represent in the details. With all that guesswork I’m ok imagining a different scenario, but I seem to do that in the actual world as well.

The next exhibit is a Roman collection from the Santarelli family that shows the beginnings of Greek statues being copied and displayed in the royal residences of popes and cardinals between the 14th and 18th centuries — the start of the Renaissance, the first public museum, and what would become archaeological science. What surprised me most was seeing the typical white marble heads atop beautiful porphyry busts (an igneous rock with crystals in a reddish groundmass).

People often ask how I feel traveling alone (without a man, without knowing the language, driving locally, etc.) and I always reassure them about how much I love it, not that I don’t have a limited other few that I also enjoy seeing new things and places with, but I’m ok doing them on my own as well, even if that means putting up with a weird guy in Sri Lanka and another in Georgia while walking between museums.

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Biltmore Hotel

I don’t know how I backtracked from the Fine Arts to the National Museum but I was unknowingly on my way to the MOMA when this guy decided to walk beside me. I would’ve been ok with his temporary company had he not felt the need to stare because he thinks I’m pretty. I appreciate the compliment and he wants to make small talk which I figure isn’t good for a museum and I’ve already seen two so I will wander into the Biltmore instead.

It’s a first for me because I rarely find myself dressed enough or nearby a hotel that charges a minimum of $180 a night unless there’s a sale and it’s my wedding anniversary or a night in Great Falls, MT. I’m enjoying the lights, decor, and warmth of the corridor and indoor pool (with curtained balconies that overlook it) when this guy gets the idea that he’s going to tell me how or where to spend my vacation and I abruptly tell him otherwise. I don’t care if he thinks security will escort him out because that’s what I had in mind.

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Christmas market clown

Just to make sure he’s gone his own way I step into the Smart Market, another public place with security, and take a picture of some tiered chocolate cups with dried fruits and nuts. The saleswoman goes to her display stash and begins to hand them to me and set some up for a posed-candy photo-op. I thought I would buy one but she was separate from the rest of the store that I wanted to explore and the guard let me know there would be no more photos inside.

I walked among the cabins at the Christmas market selling chocolate art, wooden trinkets, bottle bags, etc. and emptied the change out of my purse for a cup of glühwein that I carried with me as I moseyed into Stamba Hotel which appeared to be just an old factory turned sex lounge library at first. It’s actually an old Soviet printing house with a five-story atrium and two courtyards and guest rooms filled with more books, a reader’s paradise. If that wasn’t enough, the hotel also has a vertical garden and photo museum to highlight women photographers in the Southern Caucasus.

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Stamba Hotel

Dinner of rolled eggplant stuffed with walnut paste and covered in onion, pomegranate, and khmeli suneli (herb mix) will be at the Chaba’s Jazz Rock Cafe. I walk into the cozy establishment and sit at the end of the bar next to the 21″ TV displaying a well-lit brick-walled crackling fire while I look at the menu. I order the black bread hoping for a new carb experience, but it’s just regular delicious brown bread that will go great with my appetizer of a meal and a glass of dry red Saperavi wine from the Kakheti region.

I move to a table in the corner so I can take my coat off and listen to a guy explain to his friend about the similarities of languages and his journey of learning Spanish. This meal is embedding itself into my long-term memory and between my stomach lining as I check my pedometer for the explanation of tired legs and sore feet (no blisters is a win) and find that I climbed 56 floors (equivalent to about 1,000 stairs) in over 12 miles. I’ve hiked steeper mountains and walked in San Francisco but the elevation changes are more subtle here.

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I check on the car after a day of it being parked on a steep corner so close to someone’s gate and I’m glad I did. There is a note on the windshield that Google can’t translate (didn’t want to disturb the Dr if I didn’t have to). The sign on the door says cardiologist and that’s how the guy introduced himself after I knocked and he excused his dog from guard duty. He was going to get his son (perhaps my age) but I showed him the note and let him know I’d be gone in the morning and he agreed that was fine.

Back at the guesthouse and the manager for the night needs me to pay for my room. I told him what I paid last night and then he charged me that for two nights on my card (since I didn’t see the machine yesterday) and I will get 25 lari cash back at some point tonight. I agree and go into my room where the bed is made and fall into the mattress because one of the support beams had been dropped in the process.

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With a full tummy and my coat and boots off I could sleep but I will stay up another hour and a half to shower and plan for tomorrow. I have that feeling that it was me seeing Tbilisi but also that I saw nothing because it wasn’t me lucky enough to be experiencing another country. Usually, this feeling comes when I’m back home editing my notes and adding the pictures to the descriptions and getting to relive it all again so soon that it doesn’t seem real.

I’m in the shower when my guesthouse neighbor turns the lights off thinking she’s doing the opposite and quickly reverses her action. I’m surprised by the amount of pressure and hot water and want to set up a temporary residence here but I quickly smear soap around, grab my hair from the drain, and walk out wrapped in a towel past the lobby living room filled with men. I get my change back and there are coins for the 1s and 2s, like the loonies and toonies of Canada, which I prefer over the 10 and 20 cent pieces in filling my pocket.

My sister called while I was in the shower but instead of calling her back I will look at an unhelpful large paper map and use it as a notepad in realizing how all over the city the attractions are. They all open at 11 am and I wonder if I will see them all driving, let alone hiking like I had planned. Once my camera battery and watch are charged I can plug my phone into the one outlet (because I brought one adapter), set my alarm for my 9 am breakfast (included in the $8/night fee), and enjoy that it’s much quieter tonight outside and in.

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Gallivanting to Georgia

Zagros Mountains, Iran

For those that have been reading my blog, for years now, I feel like I don’t need to remind you how excited I get before a trip. This one would be no different. I set my alarm for 5:45, not for a wake-up alert but to let myself know after a night of popping off the pillow every half hour like it was time to go when I should actually get up to grab my bag and take an Uber to the airport since the safety situation here in Bahrain left my friend feeling cautious to be out on unnecessary travel according to the base who had just three days ago sent my husband out to sea to defend not only Americans in the region but the other nationalities that call this place home.

near Tbilisi Airport

Some spouses felt the need to leave and go to the safety of the United States and others panicked with this being their first and rough introduction to the custom of the Navy that is underway. I didn’t feel the same, as even though Caleb had less than twelve hours to get ready to deploy with another ship, this is his job and the military has kept their promise to provide three meals and a cot (whether healthy or comfy is up for debate) for the 16 years Caleb has served, so I left on my first visa run feeling sure that we would see each other in weeks.

What concerned me was the lack of communication that might follow. His first two deployments were email heavy with a phone call interspersed between the months but the longest separation left me receiving two calls daily. I didn’t think I was prepared to go without for so long, but the Navy had thought of that and the new crew was given email access within 24 hours of being onboard. Caleb and I would be able to share, me more than him, how we were doing.

St. George Statue, est. 2006

I get to see a bit of the beautiful Bahraini sunrise, from the corner of the backseat behind the high-rise buildings, that I’ve missed, just not enough to be awake for it or to step outside when I am. My driver is playing music and I wonder if it’s because I’m alone or because he’s not on the phone as having ridden with Caleb in the evenings the drivers feel fine answering the call on speakerphone to say they will call back when they have dropped us off or continuing a conversation they know we don’t understand.

I arrive at the airport in hiking boots and my Hello Kitty jacket with my face still puffy from the phone ringing on the wall, most likely for food delivery or a friend showing up to play video games with the guy below. I also forgot to flip my phone over so it lit up with a downloadable file from a Kenya number that is blocked so I could go back to closing my eyes and pretending to dream.

a house near Guest House Zemeli

The immigration agent asked for my name, a first, and then wished me a good flight. I didn’t realize how many times travel documents get checked as a precaution against travelers in a hurry getting on the wrong flight or other precarious issues that might arise. At the Bahrain airport there is a guard to ensure that only people with flights and one aide per disabled person continues towards the baggage wrapping machines and airline’s counters.

The airlines will check your passport if you’re checking a bag or don’t have an e-ticket. Another guard will check your boarding pass before the immigration agent checks your passport. Once in line for security, there is another agent checking both, and some airports don’t want you checking in too many hours early before a flight to limit congestion. I went through the scanner with a group of women in hijabs so the guy on the other side wasn’t concerned with the amount of shoes or jackets I had on, though they usually have a woman available.

a passageway, as seen from the sidewalk

I wasn’t able to get Georgian Lari at the Exchange on base so I went to BFG at the airport where there seemed to be more security checks in place, as is usually the case where high volumes of money are concerned. The company only had half the amount I planned on taking with me so I’m interested in what the conversion difference will be once I’m in country. I traded dollars, a scanned copy of my passport, and a signature for a small wad of 50 lari bills. I didn’t fully agree with the swap as I wish the transaction was more clear on the buying and selling value of the currencies being traded.

I forget that it’s winter in Bahrain and I was worried about looking out of place (which I usually do anyway) but many people have coats, gloves, scarves, and hats on — also a great way to get more carry-on without paying for the weight as my coat and camera add five pounds to my bag. I sit down near my gate and watch an Arabian toddler approach a Russian man with her little hand on his knee to get a look at his phone while he’s on a video call with his wife and baby.

pedestrian underpass

I’ve gotten to the airport too soon and I’m feeling sleepy so I grab a snack and some steps to stay awake until I’m on the plane. A woman asks me where the toilet is and I point towards the overhead sign as I try to remember the response to “shukran” as there are at least six ways to say “you’re welcome” in Arabic, “afwan” and “hala hala” being the most common. I’m the fourth one on the plane, not because of a rewards program or first-class seats but because with so many possible language barriers it’s difficult for the staff to keep people from skipping ahead anyway.

Opera and Ballet Theatre, est. 1851

The lady behind me almost grabs my face twice by slapping her fat hand onto my headrest while trying to find her seatbelt and get comfortable while the woman beside me is busy putting a seatbelt on her unbranded quilted blush backpack in the seat between us, only to have to put it under the seat like everyone else before take-off. This plane has screens available where I’m expecting to see the safety video displayed twice, once in the local language of the airline and again in English but this briefing will be brought to the passengers via a guy talking as fast as I do but in Arabic.

Kashveti St. George Orthodox Church, est. 1910

The three stewardesses are showing us how to blow ourselves to safety should the airplane experience (an event or occurrence that leaves an impression on someone) a water landing which minimizes the chances for recovery or recycling of the aircraft but might provide an artificial reef and food to the fish. These thoughts will follow me into my nap as we approach Dubai. I’m looking forward to Gulf Air increasing their direct flights to more Europian and Asian cities this summer so I can decrease the time spent on planes and in airports.

Orbeliani Square

I’m fourth in line again as I stand near a plastic-covered construction site for a flight with a delayed departure time of 30 minutes. The boarding process starts earlier when a bus is involved and I’m pulled aside to have my bag tagged for its large size. I begin pleading with the man because I know it fits in the overhead compartment and I don’t want to repack my bag for their harsh treatment. He puts the tag on and says it’s up to the flight crew. I thank him and join people on the bus with their three carry-ons and notice other bags getting tagged as well.

We arrive at the plane and a man tries to take my bag, but I assure him I’m allowed to bring it on board. The cart is filled with extra bags but still people are getting on the plane with two bags the size of mine, plus their purse, mini backpack, and duty free bags. One woman gets on with a hiking backpack that she could fit in and I don’t blame her for not wanting to part with her life’s belongings, but that could’ve been split between two bags for air travel. I’m grateful that some airlines are beginning to limit bag size and type to lessen their liability for damage and time spent fitting things into the overhead bins because people want to maximize their foot space.

Leaning Tower of Tbilisi, est. 2011

I try a trail mix Evolve plant-based protein bar (which could use only a third of the sugar and taste better) as I fly over the beautiful Zagros Mountain range in Iran. I put my tray table down in anticipation of food but I wasn’t on the pre-purchased meal list so I went to put it back up when I was offered a free veg fried noodle since there were ‘extra’, lucky me. My smart watch says we’re flying at 2,093 meters and though I can still see roads and buildings I know we’re closer to 10,900 meters otherwise we’d be crashing into the 9,800 – 14,922 ft tall snow-covered limestone and dolomite below.

I’m looking forward to the cold because my feet are getting sweaty in my boots, which next time I will either take off in-flight or pack flip flops to change into as there was enough room in my bag. Usually on descent I notice farm fields, industrial centers, major highways, or busy beaches but this landing had us passing tracts of trash and I wondered if they were natural or man-made collections. I hand the immigration officer my passport and she hands it back with a stamp in it and a small bottle of wine that says “gamarjoba”, which means “hello” in Georgian.

lamplighter statue

I am offered a taxi ten times before leaving the small departure area of the airport filled with just the necessities — rental car agencies, SIM card seller, currency exchange booth, and a restaurant — with drivers and police mingling in-between. I go to the Hertz counter and while I’m waiting on the guy to check on my license situation with my international permit I ask the next counter for water. The man asks what took me so long to ask as they saw me standing there a while but I was taking the place in — looking at the sign outside and the people walking up from a parking lot.

I’m ok to drive with my expired Florida license with military extension because I have the valid international permit that I will present with my passport if needed by the police. I chug another cup of water before attempting to get my first SIM card because Hertz doesn’t have a travel wifi and I forgot to ask about a GPS. The seller takes my phone and tries to unlock it using the airport’s wifi and then I seem to get some signal. I would be satisfied with dial-up as long as it got me to all the places on my list. I return the unusable card and exchange the rest of my dollars for lari (bills of 5, 10, and 20) and tetri (coins of 1 and 2 lari with 10, 20, and 50 tetri) which resemble the Euro coins.

Old City Wall

Back at Hertz, the guy grabs his clipboard and my suitcase to escort me to the rental lot. The 8*C feels amazing and I walk with my jacket open and no other winter accoutrements on even though I can see my breath. I told the guy I definitely packed too much but I’m hoping for snow so I should be fine. I don’t notice much about the bus on my left or the smokers to my right that we pass on our short walk but I do see the black dog sitting on the edge of the road with a yellow tag on his right ear and pause to appreciate the sky beside the airport as we arrive at my white BMW X1 4×4 which doesn’t seem to be very high clearance.

The car takes diesel and I will have two types to choose from at the pump. I pull over outside the airport for a nice picture before the road lines disappear and I follow behind a vehicle as cars merge knowingly even with oncoming traffic. I feel better once the lines return between old buildings and wintered trees. The view is constantly changing, as it usually does with any amount of movement, but the main theme on the road is buildings on, next to, and between mountains and suspended Christmas lights as I enter the busier downtown district.

statue of architect Shota Kavlashvili, est. 1999

I barely notice the sex music on the radio (sorry I don’t remember more details) as my senses are being pulled in all directions as I’m engaged like I knew I would be. The road goes from paved to smooth rocks turned on edge to provide traction for tires in inclement weather with a small concrete-like rough section between as a lane marker and footpath. I follow the signs for Guest House Zemeli as the street continues to climb and park as closely as I can next to a cardiologist’s gate (there’s a sign) to avoid being in the road, blocking the entrance, or hitting the light pole and walk up to the small wooden door with a large metal latch.

Once inside, past the glass case of toiletries for sale, there is a woman on the couch in a living room. I look up my reservation (that currently doesn’t exist) so I get to go through the motions of explaining that I would like one room with one bed to rest my soon-to-be tired head. She agrees and I pay her in cash for less than the discounted online price. I return to the car for my suitcase and can’t figure out how to lock the vehicle. There’s a button to push to shift between R and D on the side of the gear shift and another button on top to park. Then I push the on/off button and push the key fob in to release it.

fresh bouquet from the Flower Pavilion

The fob has a key that comes out with an unlock button for the doors and a separate one for the trunk which doesn’t seem to open on its own. I walk down to the main street after putting my bag in the room and my coat on as I figured the temperature would drop when the sun did. I turn left on Merab Kostava St and point to a closed khachapuri (cheese in bread) through the bakery window. I walk with a smile on my face as I take in the Christmas lights, cold cigarette smoke smell, the loose tiles underfoot, the half warm bread in my hands, and the holiday music that I can understand.

hearts in Orbeliani Square

I finish my meal quickly when I see the pomegranate juicer and get the medium size cup to chug down before I slosh it from the rim or someone bumps into me. This country, so far, makes me think of the Soviet Union, London, Singapore, New Jersey… and I’m sure this is where the ideas got started for the modern cities. My walk to the Clock Tower was a bit rushed so that I could make the 7 o’clock show or otherwise I can return at noon tomorrow. I was still able to take photos of goods being sold on steps, graffiti in the pedestrian underpass, benches and statues, and a black kitty too.

stone arches inside Kashveti St. George Church

The show starts as I walk up and find a spot amongst the crowd with their faces and phones tilted towards the top of the tower as an angelic puppet comes out to ring the bell as the “Circle of Life”, from boy meets girl to marriage, birth, and death plays out and is just as quickly over and the mass of people disperse. The Leaning Tower of Tbilisi and the marionette theatre that it’s attached to have more history and meaning than can be attained in this sneak peek into the life’s work of Rezo Gabriadze.

St. George and the Dragon

I begin my walk back towards the guesthouse and have more time to take in the well-lit under street passages that are covered in art and filled with shops selling wine, panties, fruits, and trinkets. I try some eggnog at one of the many Christmas markets, booths selling mostly hot wine and sweets. There are plenty of statues, some permanent and others adorned with lights, for the passersby photo opportunity. There’s a large fresh flower market, an open playground, a pop-up ice rink, and a metal trash can with fire lighting up the stars cut into the side.

painting above the sanctuary

The Kashveti St. George Orthodox Church is beautiful inside and out. Women are covering their hair (except for one who looks like she threw a dish towel over her head) and men giving the sign of the cross upon exit. I put my coat hood on and go in. There is no place to sit and everyone is placing an 8-inch candle, thinner than a pen, to melt under the image displaying a lord, mother, or disciple of their choosing and allowing the wax to drop on the floor as the candle is placed on a tray of its peers.

the sanctuary

I can’t tell in what order, but people are praying and kissing the cases containing images and taking their blessings from the objects in the room within reach. Some images have more gold and others are bejeweled with a description below in Georgian. Some of the wooden frames and furniture are ornately designed. The dress code sign on the side door says no flash photography and no pants for women. I’m on my way out and hold the door for a kid. His dad will give me a grateful smile and a nod.

images of Jesus

I was going to write some notes on my phone while I stood taking in the grey stone of the church contrasting with golden pictures inside and yellow street lights outside when Caleb called. We both had terrible service but I think he was able to make out that I had found a room for the night and was having an amazing time. Caleb had made a new friend to keep him company, which was good since he didn’t have a job onboard. He still wasn’t able to tell me if he would stay out to sea or return home via ship or plane according to the Navy’s plans, but it was great to hear his voice.

the bell tower

I’d spend the next hour or so getting back to the room as I pause to enter a shop and get one photo before a man comes over and turns on his language Rolodex — “ara” I don’t understand, but I know that “нет” means no more pictures. I release a long “aww” to let him know I get the message that drinks don’t like my camera. I thought about sneaking a photo of the snacks but figure I will have other shops and opportunities while I’m here. I pass the room and climb some stairs in the dark for a look over the city and the Biltmore, attached to the IMELI building which was erected in the 1930s, dominates the skyline with a 32-floor glass skyscraper that opened in 2016.

The Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute served the Georgian government from 1991 to 2007 and was partly demolished by a team that was turning it into a hotel until another group came along and spent $140 million on its preservation and additional 300-meter high hotel tower. This building combination is a great example of the country as a whole. A lot of the buildings would be condemned in the States for their broken appearance, but here they are saved to tell a story… and probably a lack of government funding to improve the situation.

My room is the first one to the right once you enter the main door and I try to enter quietly and have a look around but the fireworks outside, done before I can capture evidence, grabs the attention of the night attendant who asks if I’m German and then Russian with me saying no in both languages respectively. I tell her I speak English from America and she says her Georgian is from here. I’m grateful to the societies that understand the significance of learning another language to connect cultures without a sense of losing their identity.

I plug in the space heater and turn it on to create a barrier between the window and the bed. I hang my coat up next to the mirror and exchange clothes from my body and suitcase. I sit on the bed to plug my phone in via adapter and wish I had a match to light my bedside candle though I won’t need it with the lights flashing in through the blinds and performing a dance show on the wall. There’s also one glass there and that might be for my welcome drink but I’m ready to lay my head down on the bird sleeping in my pillow, the densest pile of covered feathers ever.

I unfold the origami sheet as it continues to grow from a neat folded napkin into a behemoth of warmth blanket that will envelop me and the mattress. I’m taking in the day and imagining tomorrow as other guests are still arriving with their text alerts and chatter that can be heard through the door. Nothing that can’t be fixed by being tired enough to roll over and go to sleep.

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Shuttle Options in the Sultanate of Oman

The dive shop probably opens by 7:30 so they can prep new divers but they don’t expect people to show until 8 am which is when I was finishing my broccoli, blackberries, and bread as I couldn’t get the enthusiasm for the passion fruit that felt like a mix of sour, bitter, and tart while chewing on the seeds that the internet recommends you swallow for the benefits without releasing the extra flavor via chomping. The shop was between hanging our things up outside and putting them on a bench inside to dry when we arrived, so I wrung out what I could and we went back to the room to pack some and put the wet gear in the sun while waiting for mini-golf to open.

A lot of the activities offered at the resort come with an added cost but we were unfortunate that the one complimentary entertainment idea was still under maintenance (which is why we missed it yesterday located by the spa) because there will be more tarp and holes than tees and clubs until tomorrow when we’re already back in Bahrain writing about this trip and telling the guys about it at work. Also included with the room is water bottles (though there is one sign that says you can purchase a reusable one to use at their flavored water stations in each lobby) they also supply mini coolers with a few plastic bottles each between lounge chairs by the pool.

#CelebrateEveryday

The hotel has a shuttle service that takes guests to a nearby souq and the Avenues Mall (closer to the airport) so we will be on the 10:30 am ride as I shove another date in my mouth and throw the seed in the bowl before we part. The Lulu’s has a luggage service (apart from their usual your bag is too big we will hold it for you while you shop) where you leave your bag and they give you a corresponding numbered tag to take with you. We begin to walk around and I reach into my purse and come back empty-handed instead of with my phone to take a picture of a display.

Caleb calls the hotel who calls the driver and lets us know that I can have my phone that I forgot on the bus back at 12:40 and then 1 pm. A taxi driver offers us a ride for 8 and then 5 rials, but I tell him not until after lunch. Back inside we walk around and up and down and through the stores, get my phone, and then return to BBQ Nation where we decided to have lunch for what I thought would be a chilli fest, but that’s only for dinner. It’s a new Indian buffet restaurant chain and I love it. You get soups, salad, main courses, and desserts while the waiter brings you appetizers and other things to try according to your veg or non-veg preference.

I got grilled peppers, pineapples, and mushrooms on skewers at the grill in our table; some potatoes, crunchy corn, and a trio of veggie patties to try; and left Caleb’s pandan and date ice cream stick after he had already refused its delivery. The waiter couldn’t understand “no” when he reminded us that the food was limitless but forgot that our stomachs are not. It’s been a year since we’ve been to the movies and we weren’t going for great but something to pass the time for the next two hours.

The buffet was 6 OMR each, the movie 7 rials for both, and the taxi was 6 OMR after I haggled him down from 9 rials because I knew I could get it cheaper and that he didn’t have to pay airport fees. I knew we’d have to wrap our bags again, but this left me with 3 OMR in cash and the minimum per bag was 2 rial so I smiled when he said he takes Visa, but he also charged 6 OMR total. Oh well, our vacation would soon be over and we’d be in an Uber in Bahrain listening to the window flags on the car from National Day. Now I know what they sound like.

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A Swimming Operation in the Sultanate of Oman

There are two ways to get to breakfast (bircher/mango muesli, congee (Chinese rice porridge), chickpea/couscous salad, pancakes with a thickened maple sauce, and Omani saffron pancakes with honey, etc.). One is to walk directly towards the group of tables from our room to the right and the other is to walk around the pool area and past the open door with just the sheer curtain closed (talk about feeling safe in the Middle East) though some people felt the need to guard their purse at the table, Caleb and I knew that the birds posed a higher risk of stealing food.

Arabian Monocle Bream

I get to take another walk around the pool while Caleb leaves me locked out of the room while we both move more slowly this morning not certain that we will be diving as the whitecaps (wind + water = choppy chaos) are increasing our chances that the boat won’t want to float in that situation. The shop is concerned about getting us to a new dive site, but I assure them that the closest one is fine if it means less possibility of someone getting seasick or Caleb hurting his neck. I even offered to dive in the marina as I’ve been told some turtles live there and I’ve seen one or two of them.

Arabian Butterflyfish

The first dive spot is a bit rough for the company’s standards but I have no problem enjoying the water and easily getting back onboard. I’ve had more trouble trying to get back on a dinghy in Baja California, Mexico or back onshore in La Jolla, California. Some turtle viewing and tea sipping after the second dive and we’re told that the afternoon is cancelled, whether we planned to go out or not, and we’re ok with that as it will give us time to explore the resort grounds before we leave tomorrow morning. The shop offers to rinse our gear and dry it for us so it’s travel-ready — we agree.

green sea turtle

We get dropped off at the Omani Heritage Village (not one to avoid somewhere due to someone else’s negative review) and quickly realize why the ladies could get upset even though we enjoyed ourselves. The first shop was too hot, the second shop was too smelly, and the third shop was just right (as long as he left the door open) but it seemed the owners wanted to shut us in and limit distractions from their animal trinkets and woven garments and other touristy remembrances of a place.

Indo-Pacific sargeants

It was in that moment I realized that though the Middle East might seem like a large sandbox to some just filled with camels and the people who ride them that through our travels we have noticed the differences and purchased memorabilia accordingly — for Oman that is frankincense and the traditional cap (kuma). Also in the village replica was a small section of their canal (falaj, and aflaj plural) system. Going through a door brought us into a car museum with military jeeps, family classics, and hand-crank start vehicles. There was also a craft room and sports section (trampoline and soccer) for kids with a large outdoor stadium on the other side of the building.

Omani Heritage Village

We meander along walkways and follow employees through parking lots, find some stairs (along with some aubergine and capsicum plants) but can’t find the mini-golf so we decide to read by the pool. My book is about animal competition against other animals and plants in weather extremes and predators amongst their species fighting to spread their genes and killing others to avoid being extinguished themselves.

Al Bandar lobby

Someone has secretly been bringing apples to our room, obviously room service, and we’ve been bringing back bananas from lunch and some bread from last night so I grab that to snack on while waiting two more hours for dinner to open at Chow Mee. My dinner will include stuffed tofu which is fancier than it sounds as it’s just carrots, sprouts, and green onions shoved into a wedge of coagulated and pressed bean curd which is still delicious and saved me room for pandan (that sweet green grass used in bread that I had in Singapore) crepes. They were fluffy but also stuffed with coconut covered in muscovado sugar which stole the flavor show.

Dinner was nothing to complain about though and I forgot we had plans to get some more night shots around the resort but what we hadn’t realized was just how rough the seas were today and how tiring that is when your whole body is at once going with the flow and then avoiding it and repeating this constantly for an hour at a time to get as close to sea life as possible without destroying it while also trying to look out into the blurry distance in the hopes of seeing another turtle or shark. Caleb wins the race to get under the sheets first but unlike him, I don’t pretend to read before falling asleep when other couples are just sitting down to their evening reservations.

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Saving Others in the Sultanate of Oman

Silly me to think I’d have all the same foods to choose from the breakfast buffet. We woke up earlier this morning just so that I’d have more time to get a second plate, but I still got the Waldorf salad — just apples, sambar rice without veggies or soup, and a grilled tomato. It’s amazing the variety of color in my diet when someone else does all the prep work — and this is healthier than filling up on sugar cookies with tea.

look for the octopus
picking up plastic

The shuttle is called and I get in and scoot over to make room for my husband when the boy with peach fuzz on his upper lip named Bart almost takes out my hand in a rush to sit next to me. I smile as I can hear Caleb and the boy’s mom laughing behind me. She’s about the size of her daughter and they were cold on yesterday’s ride so they asked the shop about sweaters. There weren’t any in Caleb’s size so I took one that will now be my designated dive hoodie and he can appreciate it on me.

Caleb and I watched an octopus climb under a large rock and instead of coming out of hiding to entertain the tourists he began to pull another rock in the hole he entered as more protection and camouflage. Back on board, I will learn a lesson about sitting next to my gear. I thought I saw this guy’s ass crack swallow my spare regulator (also called octopus), but luckily I was still seeing its bright yellow because it was turned the other way safely towards my BCD, but not something I want to risk thinking about the next time it goes near my mouth.

blacktip reef shark

That same guy would later hit my knee with his set up as he had trouble getting in and out of his gear every time. It makes sense why he was in search of fins so desperately asking each person about the perks of theirs (and being offered to try different ones, which I hadn’t thought of, just been exposed to) and so surprised at our enthusiasm for diving as much as weather and company would allow in our time here, though I could’ve squeezed in a few more minutes each dive had I known they weren’t setting a timer, as we still had plenty of air.

Our second dive started with spotting the blacktip reef shark that quickly became a blur. They are about five feet long and no more than 30 pounds and though they attack one wading person every five years they’re on the Near-Threatened list for their meat, oil, and fins from being fished off the coasts of India and Thailand. It was such a beautiful dive full of clownfish in their anemones, sea cucumbers on the sand, shellfish in cracks, pufferfish floating, boxfish eating, lionfish hiding, a crown-of-thorns starfish, white peppered moray eel, and small pipefish (in the seahorse family).

We swam over and through some large rocks and I saw a large fishing net strangling coral, but Caleb said it was too much and illegal to disturb the environment (which I would leave alone if the rope had growth) but I saw a happy eel and some swimming fish so we kept on moving until I saw a crab tangled in another pile who just happened to be next to a lionfish and urchin (both with pointy dangerous parts) and I had to hold the rope to stay steady enough to use my tiny blunt-tipped knife for the first time. Caleb held the crab who seemed to cooperate at first as there was so much netting around his eight legs and got more frightened as he got more freedom, so I let him hold my knife handle while we worked off more with our fingers.

marbled rock crab

That took up some of our dive time, about ten minutes at least, so we decided to turn around and wouldn’t you know it… that fishing net that we had passed earlier had captured a victim in the time it took us to release the crab. This time it was a broomtail wrasse and he was already cut deep which made me want to cry more but I was so angry at the situation and wanted to stay and cut it all away (even if it meant switching tanks underwater) but I left the fish hiding under a rock and passed a turtle on the way back to the boat. I can’t help but wonder which animal will be next.

There is a crab taking advantage of his picnic in the sea on the next dock over when we return to drop the others off and have a box lunch with a slider in place of the delicious mini everything bagel (should’ve left the chef a note) that I was looking forward to. With not as much time to explore, we will take to the yacht side of the marina and have a peek at the outside of these million-dollar crafts with monthly payments that cost as much as I can afford on a new car (on a 15-year loan).

Mich asks if we want a guide for the afternoon as we will have the boat to ourselves. I offer that he can join us, but he’s not getting in unless he’s getting paid (those are the rules). We see some purple tang, pennant coralfish, big booty starfish (pin cushion sea star), Indo-Pacific sargeant fish, hard and soft coral, fish that like to rest in the sand in groups and then Caleb swims up to show me the picture he just took of my fins and a sea turtle. I’m happy that he got to see what I swam over on this low visibility and high surge dive.

scorpion fish

With no other divers back at the shop we take off on foot to enjoy the afternoon walking by perfectly trimmed hedges and through the one-lane tunnel with a 90-second red light for cars and a separate space for pedestrians (which makes me wonder about the footprints on the inches of dirt available, possibly just to avoid the stairs). The shop rinses our gear and keeps it overnight, but they don’t charge our batteries (so it’s a good thing Caleb brought a power bank since we forgot last night) and left the GoPro tonight so we will take the shuttle back.

jewel moray eel

Four women join us on the bus — two for the Omani Heritage Village (that they weren’t impressed with) and two for the #BajOman sign near the marina though they were told they weren’t allowed in — which I understand with the super expensive yachts and dive boats why the hotel would want to limit liability. I was going to wait on the bus but offered to take a picture from every angle for both of them and individually. I also asked the bus driver to stop at the top of the hill so they could get a few more. We pick up the other two on our return to the hotel.

Trying to ask questions at the front desk can seem pointless as though the hotel’s website lists all the languages spoken at the resort it doesn’t claim that all of them will be understood by different staff and that’s reasonable, but it doesn’t stop me from trying as we got spoiled when we arrived. People come with individual strengths and knowing when to keep my mouth to myself is not one of mine. I just wanted to make sure that I was enjoying my stay to the fullest (though I didn’t know what that meant), but that’s for another day.

big booty starfish (pin cushion sea star)

We will have dinner at Samba because it’s the closest restaurant with outdoor seating and has veggie options. I get the lentil soup and hummus with pita. Caleb gets the nachos grande and I’m grateful I don’t have to help him attack an American size portion as perhaps the name just refers to the large blue corn chips under some cheese and salsa. My soup feels watered down and no fresh green apple juice for dinner because they need it on the breakfast buffet. Life could be worse and I’m on vacation so I’ll leave the ridiculous complaints to others on Travelocity.

green sea turtle

Our after-dinner walk will take us to Al Bandar to gander at the restaurant lights and different perspective of the sea and resort. There is a real gingerbread house that I would fit in with employees selling Santas, yule logs, mince pies, cylinders of cookies, and other holiday-themed treats. We walk into a shop and lucky for me the man tries to sell us both scarves — pashmina for me and cashmere for Caleb. It was fun trying them on but I already have a collection.

life-size gingerbread house

There’s a small art display upstairs, a carpet seller that must be napping (as they usually very eagerly approach a could-be customer), and a shop selling swimsuits. We take a detour back to the room by walking by the delivery entrance. Just because we’re diving doesn’t mean I can disappoint my activity tracker which will be easier to please in about seven years when I’m able to upgrade my dive computer to account for all the fin kicks under the sea.

We haven’t owned a TV in at least a decade (not to say that our Bahrain villas don’t come with one in each room, whether they’re hooked up or not) and sold our unused projector (or maybe gave it away because of a spare bulb issue) years ago, but we used to enjoy our raunchy, depraved, mindless moments in front of a set in a hotel room while traveling and I guess we’re growing up as that time is now spent reading if I’m not writing or falling asleep first.

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